Portland’s “arts tax” smells fishy

by Steve, October 22nd, 2012

On the ballot in Portland is measure 26-146, which supporters say would “restore arts education to Portland schools.” Hey, great idea (and full disclaimer, I don’t vote in Portland, but I’d probably vote for it if I did), but there are some significant questions to consider with this $35 head tax.

  • Why can’t Portland schools fund universal access to K-12 music education like Beaverton schools do (with the exact same funding per student from the state), and why should the city bail PPS out (again)?
  • Why does only a little over half of the money go to schools with the rest going to RACC’s friends?
  • Why a regressive (and possibly illegal) head tax to the city instead of an operating levy to the district?
  • Why does it spread equal resources to rich and poor schools instead of focusing on the schools that need it the most?

The answer to the first question is tightly linked to the last question. Portland Public Schools has for years shifted funding out of its poorest neighborhoods to its wealthiest neighborhoods. The result is wealthy, white students have largely maintained arts education while non-white, poverty-affected student have lost it. This is the direct result of attendance policies implemented over the years by the school board. They should be held to account for it.

The PPS school board should be ashamed that this flawed measure is even on the ballot. It shows their total lack of ability to run their district in an efficient and fair manner. Yes, the state does not provide enough funding, and that should be dealt with. But this is not the way to do it.

In case you were wondering

by Steve, October 9th, 2012

This is what a mens’ room at a Justin Bieber concert looks like:


by Steve, September 22nd, 2012

Stay tuned… have a couple new tracks in the works with live traps (instead of midi).

Los Lobos groovin on the grass

by Steve, August 12th, 2012

Los Lobos!
Los Lobos closed their high energy free concert with an encore mashup of La Bamba/Good Lovin.
Rainbow crowd
A great crowd turned out on a beautiful summer evening.
Date nite
Nancy’s favoritist band ever! As a non-rock fan, I give them huge respect for being a great, straight-up hardworking rock band but so much more.

As a Latin music fan I was happy to hear some Spanish songs. Only two cumbia numbers all night (but the yuppies in the mosh pit “don’t know how to cumbia” remarked the Chicanos behind us).

Also, I never knew what deadheads these guys are. “Are there any hippies here?” they asked by way of introducing the Grateful Dead’s West LA Fadeaway (75% of the yuppies raised their hands). Then Cesar Rosas riffed on the opening bars of Truckin’ while musing, “How come nobody does Truckin? It’s such a great song.” David Hidalgo said “There’s no such thing as a bad Grateful Dead song!”

Great show and great logistics by the best park and rec district I’ve ever known (well, South Suburban may be better, since they’ve got four sheets of ice).

The problem(s) with Idol

by Steve, May 11th, 2012

Look, I’m not half the writer NYMag.com/Vulture.com’s Dave Holmes is, so if you really want the low down on American Idol, check his recaps. Other than his crush on Philip Philips and his love of Elise Testone (she who could bear no criticism), I pretty much agree with him right down the line. (And what the hell happened to MTV’s Jim Cantiello?)

But I’ve got a few comments.

First, I finally figured who Steven Tyler (STyler in our house) looks like: that aging hippie woman at the local co-op, who spends hours a week shopping and socializing with the staff and wants to tell the young produce guy all about her wild days on the commune or her latest colonic recipe. I mean, he looks exactly like that woman. (I spent the better part of 10 years working produce at natural food stores, so I speak as an authority on this.)

Second, let me just say that Jimmy Iovine is the refreshing voice of truth in contrast to all the fluffy nonsense spouted by the judges. STyler, JLo and Randy Jackson seem so hopped up on goof balls all the time, it’s a shock — a shock! — when they say something critical, and even more of a shock when their criticism is actually accurate.

I don’t always agree with Jimmy’s analysis, but he’s the pro, with real actual insight into what makes an artist a star. He criticized 16-year-old phenom Jessica Sanchez for “pulling the rabbit out of the hat” too much (i.e. overusing her growl she started developing at the age of 7), but went on to reveal that she’s basically already got a contract with his Interscope label (along with fellow top-three contenders Joshua Ledet and Philip Philips).

So Jimmy, speaking of leaving the rabbit in the hat, what’s the deal with signing the top three to Interscope contracts when the grand prize of this whole contest is… a contract with Interscope?

At this point you may be asking yourself: What the hell is Steve doing paying all this attention to American Idol? Yeah, I’m asking myself that too. In three hours a week, there’s about ten minutes of entertainment, the rest being fluffed-up group numbers, ginned-up reality TV drama, embedded Coke and Ford ads, and listless (and/or overwrought) performances by past Idol losers (and a couple winners).

But I’m funny that way. If I’ve committed to half an hour of a crappy film, I’m in it to the end. We’re a few weeks from the Idol finale (featuring that aging hippie lady and her rock band Aerosmith, and probably not Mark Anthony and Sheila E., darn it), so I can’t quit now. We’re not going to the live show this year, however.

You gotta draw the line somewhere.

Eileen Brady’s pass expires

by Steve, February 1st, 2012

[audio:LetsAllGoShopping.mp3] Let’s all go shopping

Last year, when Eileen Brady declared her intent to run for Portland Mayor, I started trying to draw attention to her and her husband’s anti-labor past with Nature’s fresh Northwest and its successor, New Seasons Market. Portland’s non-union (and often anti-union) media missed the boat completely and gave her a pass when she claimed credibility as a “progressive” employer.

Now Nigel Jaquiss, one of the few reporters in town who not only “gets it” on any number of issues, but also has the editorial freedom to “write it,” has dug up a remarkable passage in the New Seasons employee manual Brady takes credit for writing (her paternalistic husband claims he wrote the passage in question).

Labeling unions “extremist” and lumping them in with “anti-human rights organizations,” the manual appears in conflict with federal labor law (which guarantees workers the right to talk with and about unions).

Read Nigel’s piece to get all the hilarity of Brady’s husband Brian Rohter (who screamed sexism at an earlier WW piece) trying to shield his wife from criticism on this.

Way to go, Nigel. Glad there’s at least one reporter in Portland who is willing to probe Brady’s questionable past with regard to organized labor.

Update 2/1/2012 2:00pm: Brady’s campaign wasted no time getting a defensive e-mail blast out (read it on her campaign Web site).

sunrise over Mt. Hood in time lapse

by Steve, January 12th, 2012

The sunrise wasn’t as dramatic today as yesterday, but I had my camera ready. Music played by me some time in the 90s, recorded on a 4-track cassette recorder. J.V. Owings “Musette” for 4 clarinets. (Sloppy edit at the end; still learning how to do this video stuff!)

My commute this morning

by Steve, November 1st, 2011

It’s all good; it’s $ustainable!

by Steve, June 2nd, 2011
How the bad seed of greed infested Nature's

New Seasons Market founder Eileen Brady has declared in the race for Portland mayor. Since she has no political experience, she is leaning heavily on her experience as a “progressive” employer, among other things.

I’m down with a lot of the things she’s worked for: local, sustainable agriculture and health care, for example. But I got some bones to pick with the idea of New Seasons modeling a progressive workplace, based largely on my experience working for Brady’s husband Brian Rohter and New Seasons co-owner Stan Amy at Nature’s in the 90s. Things are obviously different at New Seasons today than they were 15 years ago at Nature’s. But casual conversations with New Seasons staff confirm to me that a general antipathy toward collective bargaining lurks at New Seasons just as it did at Nature’s.

In all the news coverage of Brady’s nascent campaign, I have yet to see a journalist broach organized labor with her. For example, can she call herself a progressive employer when she’s talking about the largest non-union grocery chain in town? A decent reporter with any sense of labor history might at least bring this up. The natural foods industry, led nationally by Whole Foods, is making non-union inroads into the traditionally well-organized grocery industry; it is the only growth sector in the business. But lazy Portland media, led by the consistently anti-union, pro-business Oregonian, will probably just leave this angle alone, despite its pertinence to a largely working class electorate.

So: Is Eileen Brady anti-union? If not, would she and her co-owners direct New Season’s management to recognize a staff union on card check, rather than intimidating workers and forcing a divisive certification vote, as happened at Nature’s in 1997? (The certification narrowly lost after a protracted war of attrition by management.)

I was involved at the outset of this effort to organize staff at Nature’s stores starting in 1996, and faced disciplinary action and textbook anti-union tactics for my efforts. Below is my story. It ran in the Portland Alliance in July 1997. (Willamette Week also covered the campaign, but their online archives also do not go back that far.)

Oh, but wait, before we get into that! I’m so excited about Eileen’s campaign, I’m making a video about her stores! It’s not quite ready, but here’s a rough mix preview of the song I wrote for it.


Listen to that while you read this:

How the bad seed of greed infested Natures

By Steve Pings Rawley

It was the classic “good cop/ bad cop” routine. The general manager demanded information about the union. The human resources manager assured me that it was for my own good to tell all. Having collected union authorization cards from a majority of the eligible staff at my store, I knew I had to hold my ground.

The interrogation took place in a dank storage room above the funky Corbett Nature’s and followed a meeting in which general manager Brian Rohter and human resources manager Carole Ann Rogge explained the responsibilities of supervisors during a union campaign, including a prohibition on interrogations. When I refused to give any information, I was suspended for two days and forced to seek legal counsel. In order to keep my job, I was compelled to sign a gag order and a series of restrictive agreements.

The union campaign at Nature’s began in earnest shortly after the former owners sold the company for $17.5 million in August of 1996 to Pittsburgh-based General Nutrition companies. Stan Amy (who remains president with a five-year contract) pocketed $11.5 million, and as a polite gesture (perhaps to ease his conscience) distributed $500,000 in stock to the staff.

Nature’s, with its hippie roots, makes much of its commitment to earth-friendly causes and its development of staff as “knowledge workers.” Much is said about the company’s diversity, but a quick look around the room at a quarterly management meeting shows that Nature’s is overwhelmingly white in the upper echelons. By contrast, in a crowded kitchen in the basement of the Fremont store, a mostly Mexican and Central American crew toils to produce Nature’s own line of prepared foods.

A union contract for the staff would “destroy Nature’s culture,” says Rogge (who has only been with Nature’s since September of 1995). But this fiercely defended culture seems to be nothing more than a cult of personality surrounding Stan Amy. It is a throw-back to the times when there were only two or three stores employing fewer than 100 workers.

Nature’s employs close to 600 workers at six retail locations, and is owned by a multinational, publicly-traded corporation with 2,500 retail outlets. In light of this, many workers have begun to reject this notion of culture” imposed from above.

“They’ve got enough money to buy their own culture,” said Alan Ambrocio, a pro-union truck driver for Nature’s. “As a normal working person I just want a slice of the pie.”

The slice Nature’s workers currently get is small, with most jobs starting under seven dollars an hour and topping out at $10. Family insurance is prohibitively expensive, costing hundreds of dollars a month.

“If people could realize that they create their own workplace culture, their lives would better,” said Chris Ayers, another trucker and union activist. “We are the same people we were before the campaign began. We do our jobs, we love our jobs, and we’re good at it. What we’re doing is living out our ideals, and that’s what our culture is.”

Management has decided to fight to keep its staff from organizing at any cost. To this end they have retained the law firm Bullard Korshoj Smith and Jernstedt, renowned for their union-busting savvy. In response to a flyer written and distributed by Nature’s staff last fall, Rohter fired off a memo straight from his lawyers’ play-book.

After thoroughly trashing the union, using inflated figures and misstated data, the memo wrapped up, “Nature’s is not anti-union.” While many staff members were in hysterics at the irony, others were cowed by management’s surrealistic logic: If you are pro-union, you must be anti-Nature’s.

Management has attempted to control all information regarding the union. They have reacted largely with fear and denial, successfully whipping the faithful into an anti-union lather.

Union representatives were prohibited at all Nature’s sites, then criticized for making house calls. With a dearth of accurate information about collective bargaining available to staff, the union campaign appeared to be losing steam by the end of a chilly winter.

A core group of employees kept the faith, though, and the campaign resurfaced after 10-year veteran truck driver David Chavez was denied a promotion which was given to a driver with less than two years on the job. When Chavez protested, he was offered two weeks’ pay to find another job.

A self-described “company man” who likes his job and has a family to support, Chavez weathered this slap in the face from those he once considered friends and made the decision to organize. At a May 21 quarterly management meeting, he presented general manager Rohter with a letter requesting recognition of United Food and Commercial Workers Local 555 to represent the five truck drivers at Nature’s. Management’s response was predictable.

“Not only are they fighting it, they’re spending a lot of time and money trying to stop it,” said Chavez.

Management appealed the truckers’ request for a certification election to the National Labor Relations Board on specious ground. It became clear that this was merely a stalling tactic at the NLRB appeal hearing June 9 and 10, when management attempted to make the case that Nature’s is different from traditional employers and deserves special treatment under the law.

Human resources manager Rogge testified that Nature’s is “non-hierarchical,” and that decisions are made “with staff involvement… a lot of information is shared with staff in order to make decisions.”

“Nobody asked me if we should open a new store,” said Chavez. “Nobody asked me if we should sell the company.” With the appeal “they were reaching for anything” to slow down the process, he said.

Nature’s resistance to its employees’ efforts to organize is uncannily similar to the tactics of another hippie-gone-corporate company, Borders Books. There too, management attempts to trade on its leftish roots, and claims that collective bargaining will destroy “Borders culture.” Behind the friendly face of community, however, standard tactics of intimidation and legal wrangling are exercised to keep workers down.

Like Nature’s, Borders claims to want “one-on-one dialogue” with staff members, but retains Jackson, Lewis, a law firm known for its anti-labor work. Both company’s make a lot of noise about the salaries paid to union presidents, while keeping their own management salaries under wraps. [GNC CEO William Watts pocketed a cool $1.3 million in 1995.] And in the end, both companies make huge profits on the backs of under-paid retail workers.

The significance of these campaigns is not lost on the “born-again capitalists” (Stan Amy’s self-description) who run these companies. It is ultimately about retail workers taking control of their lives and demanding some modicum of power over their jobs. Whether or not a company has a “social mission” is irrelevant if workers are not provided a living wage, family benefits, protection for seniority, and democratic control in their workplace.

“Nature’s is a multimillion dollar corporation, owned by an even larger corporation,” said Chavez. “As much as they want to hold on to that ‘culture,’ their bottom line is making money.”

The Solid Gold American Idol Celebrity Extravaganza

by Steve, May 26th, 2011

I don’t know how I got roped into watching every damn episode of American Idol this season (oh, wait, yes I do), but wife N. and tween daughter E. summed up the experience nicely as 17-year-old winner Scotty McCreery soaked up the glory.

Just as I was thinking to myself, Man, that boy is gonna get some serious play, N. pipes up, “He’s gonna get more cookie than the Keebler Elf.”

E. wasn’t quite on the same wavelength. “He’s gonna get a cookie?”

As Randy Jackson would say, “What kind of show is this?!?”

Ryan Seacrest had the best quip of the night, after a clip reel of Randy Jackson saying “in it to win it” about 100 times: “We gotta get you a new writer.”

(Okay, shit, this is going to get long winded, so if you want the quick hit, you should just watch Jim Cantiello’s American Idol in 60 Seconds. Always the most trenchant Idol commentary, even if he can’t get down wit the country.)

The whole show unfolded like a 70s-80s variety show in the massive Nokia Theatre in L.A. There were so many celebrity surprises and crazy moments, I’m just going to have to do a list.

  • The final 13 kicked things off with rendition of Lady Gaga’s Born This Way.
  • James Durbin sang with with the actual, in person Judas Priest, complete with their sole original member. And was that Rob Halford or not? I think it was, but it’s not like anybody’s giving him any props.
  • Jacob Lusk sang with Kirk Franklin and the full gospel choir. He also got the celebrity surprises started in earnest with Gladys Knight.
  • Family dog favorite Casey Abrams did a fat-boy (frat-boy?) version of Fat Bottom Girls with Jack Black. I used up most of our DVR commercial buffer fast forwarding past it in order to get the ladies back in the room. (Considering whom the producers later paired Haley Reinhart with, putting Casey with Jack Black was kind of a major dis.)
  • The girls came back out singing a Beyonce medley, topped off with an appearance by Beyonce herself. Did I mention Beyonce is friggin’ amazing?)
  • And then the Jack Black/Casey Abrams dis was complete when they trotted out none other than Tony friggin’ Bennet himself with Haley Reinhart. Take that, Casey! Burn!
  • The girls came back out to do a number with TLC, performing without the late, great Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes. An emotional moment for N., who adored Left Eye.
  • Scotty McCreery shared the stage with Tim McGraw, singing Live Like You Were Dying, one of N.’s all-time country faves.
  • Then, the musical highlight of the night. Marc Anthony with the full Latin orchestra doing Hector Lavoe’s Aguanile. I say: “A real Latin Band. That’s cool. He’s singing in Spanish. That’s cool. A woman playing timbales. That’s cool.” N. says: “Hey, isn’t that Sheila E?” Marc Anthony says: “SHEILA EEEEEEE!!!” and she friggin’ kills on a timbales solo. Then J Lo comes out, butt first. “I’d know that ass anywhere,” I say. She proceeds to friggin kill it on a butt shaking solo. I think to myself, yeah, Mark Anthony is a talented band leader and singer and all, but that’s not what makes him the luckiest SOB on the planet.
  • The boys come out with a Tom Jones medley… Can you guess who comes out to join them? Oh yeah, it’s Tom Jones, still sexy after all these years. Cut to Jack Black in the audience, looking like he’s going to throw his panties on stage.
  • Fulfilling the foreshadowing of the first number, Lady Gaga appears on a giant Star Trek rocky planet set piece. Pretty soon she takes off her overcoat. “I knew she had a leather bikini under there somewhere,” says N. “Doesn’t she always?” says E. She’s got the Solid Gaga Dancers below, and she lifts her leg up on her keyboard, showing the full ass to the camera. Then, keepin’ it even more family friendly, a boy dancer joins her on her perch and simulates hot sex before they fall together into the abyss. Randy’s down there saying “What kind of show is this?!?” I’m saying “Gaga’s in it to win it yo!”
  • Lauren Alaina belts one out with her idol Carrie Underwood.
  • Another clip reel with Casey sounding bitter. I don’t think he’s acting.
  • Beyonce comes back pleading with me to make love to her. The ladies in the room are extremely uncomfortable at this point. I’m saying, the woman’s got pipes. She can dance. She can produce. Beyonce is IN IT TO WIN IT!!!
  • Bono and The Edge perform the ultimate self-parody with Spiderman flying through the house. Edge always seems like an imposter to me. After all these years, he still doesn’t really have much in the way of guitar chops. The kid singing with them does Bono better than Bono. And he’s better looking, too, and probably doesn’t avoid paying taxes like Bono. N. says “What are they singing, anyway? ‘If you send fries to above?'” Then spidey descends for a JLo kiss, but JLo says no friggin way. I mean, WTF was that all about anyway?
  • Steven Tyler does a passable cover of Dream On. Wait, is it a cover if he was the original artist? And where the hell is Joe Perry? What is this, the Steven Tyler Band?
  • Lauren looks like she’s about to pass out right before Scotty is announced the winner. Scotty gets some girls wondering when he says of Lauren “we’ve been together for a long time and we’re going to stay together.” He goes to sing his debut single, hugging his whole family in the front row, then some random old guys with long hair — wait, was one of those guys John Voight? — but leaving Jack Black hanging, arms outstretched.

In between there are lots of clips and integrated Ford ads (“The whole thing is a Ford ad,” says E.).

At its worst, American Idol is crappy reality TV, with all the exploitation and ginned-up drama. Not that that’s not entertaining some times. One clip reel featured Idol crew sticking their cameras in the faces of crying rejects and their parents.

“You want me to kick you in your [bleepin bleep] you better get the [bleep] outta my way,” says one mom, shielding her crying kid. Then she turns to her kid: “Shut up, Maria.” Then she smacks the camera.

But ultimately it comes down to old-fashioned singing and dancing, which is what kept me coming back. A hot band and some young up-an-comers leaving it all on stage.

I told the women-folk, when we go see the Idol tour live, you can’t walk out of the room when Casey takes the stage. “Oh yes we can,” says N., who thinks she just might have to take a little stretch right about then.